Part 1 –Introduction and Listening Evaluations
I’ll never be one of those audio enthusiasts to say that I’m satisfied with my rig(s). I always want more, I just hate going through the rigmarole of evaluating gear. You know what I’m talking about: researching reviews and manufacturer’s literature, sifting through manufacturer’s hype and bs, buying/borrowing/selling gear, pulling my audio racks out from the wall numerous times to swap cables and components and the tedious listening evaluation and note taking process.
Based on what I had read about the Resolution Reference speaker cables and on my good experience with the PS Audio xStream Resolution Transcendent XLR interconnect cables, I decided to try a 3 meter pair of the xStream Resolution Reference speaker cables. The review of the Transcendent interconnects can be found here: Ps Audio xStream Transcendent IC Review. The Transcendent IC review also lists the associated equipment and recorded media used in this review. My previous speaker cables were Monster Cable Z3 Reference.
The basic specifications for the PS Audio xStream Resolution Reference and Monster Cable Z3 Reference speaker cables are:
PS Audio xStream Resolution Reference-Approximately 11 AWG solid core conductors built from PCOCC (Pure Copper by Ohno Continuous Casting process) copper. The cross sectional area of the xStream cable is actually 11% larger than 11 AWG wire. The cable legs are terminated with soldered on spades and screw-on banana plug adapters are included. Price: $800 per 3 meter pair.
Monster Cable Z3 Reference-10 AWG mult-gauge stranded conductors built from OFC (Oxygen Free Copper) copper. The cable legs are terminated with Monster Lock Pins which allow banana plugs and various size spades to be screwed on. Price: $300 per 10 foot pair.
Figure 1. xStream Resolution Reference Speaker Cable.
Figure 2. xStream Resolution banana plug adapters.
The cables were purchased brand new. Out of the box, they were horrible. Absolutely the worst sounding cables I have heard in a long time. They were unlistenable with a tizzy, bright, high end, a constricted soundstage in three dimensions (it was as if the sound stage was scrunched down in the area between my speakers), and slow, sluggish bass. I would not call the bass “muddy”, but it was inarticulate and dull sounding. PS Audio specifies a break in period of 200 hours. If a component or cable does not impress me within the first 50 hours of play, I send it back or put it up for sale. I do not think that I should have to wait for a month before a piece of audio gear begins to “reveal” itself. I initially thought that the xStream speaker cables would be going back at the end of the week. Fortunately, the cable’s character opened up significantly after 10-1/2 hours of play at moderate level (95 dB). The soundstage width and height constriction was gone. Depth was still shortened. I also noticed more midrange and upper midrange detail than the Z3’s. The bass was still “soft”.
Day one consisted of 21 hours of play time. My backup CD player did overnight break in duty at low volume while I slept.
Most of the high frequency brightness was gone. I heard percussion details in familiar recordings that I did not remember. I switched the Z3’s back in to see if the new sounds were evident with the old cable. They were, but I had never noticed them before because they were low level background sounds and were obscured by other percussion instruments. For example, on track 4 (“B’wana-He No Home”) of Michael Franks’ “Sleeping Gypsy” CD, there is a glockenspiel at 0:42-0:47, 1:29-1:36, and 2:38-3:27 that I had never noticed before. It, and the other background percussion instruments were clearly delineated, even as the track was fading out to the end.
I still hated the bass. On Dave Brubeck’s “Time Out”, the midrange and treble sounds were more detailed than with the Z3 cable. However, the drummer and bass player sounded like they were playing with wet sheets draped over them.
Day two consisted of 16 hours of play time. My backup CD player did overnight break in duty while I slept.
At the beginning of day three, I immediately noticed that the bass speed and detail had greatly improved. There was still a sheet draped over the bass player and drummer, but it was a dry sheet rather than a wet one. The midrange and treble now sounded far better than the Z3. The bass still needed some work. After 10 hours of play at normal level (85 dB), the “liquid” midrange and treble that I had enjoyed with the Transcendent IC/Z3 speaker cable combination was back. Stringed instruments like violins also had a “thicker”, richer, more vibrant sound. The bass anomalies were gone, but the bass performance was merely the equal of the Z3 cable. The xStreams had beat the 50 hour sink or swim deadline by three hours.
Day three consisted of 13 hours of play time.
I was going to be away from home most of day four. I set up my backup Adcom GCD-750 CD player to play at a high level (105 dB) while I was gone. I returned 6 hours later and expected to find my amp’s heat sinks to be very hot, but they were only 116 degrees and 121 degrees respectively. They idle at 105 degrees and 108 degrees respectively. I let the music play for an additional 5 hours at normal level.
Day four consisted of 11 hours of play time.
I was working from home in the morning and could not play any music because I was on the phone most of the time. When I left to go to the office, I forgot to leave the backup CD player running. I could have gotten in an additional 6 hours at 105 dB while I was gone. Upon returning, I let the Cary SACD player run for 3 hours before I sat down for a critical listening session. I first reinstalled the Z3 cable to hear how much of a sonic “fallback” would occur with my old pal.
I kicked things off with a comparative study of the CD and LP versions of one of my favorite albums, Michael Franks “Sleeping Gypsy”. I first listened to the CD version using the Z3 and xStream cables. That was followed up with a comparison of the CD and LP versions using the xStream cables. Both the CD and LP are well recorded and feature music from Jazz heavyweights Michael Brecker, Joe Sample, Wilton Felder, Larry Carlton, David Sanborn, Joao Donato, and Ray Armando. Copies of the soundstage evaluation charts for this album are attached below.
Figure 3. "Sleeping Gypsy": A contemporary Jazz masterpiece in analog and digital formats.
The Z3’s did not stay connected very long. They didn’t sound “bad” in comparison, in fact the Z3’s did a commendable job in comparison to cables costing 2.67 times their price. They’ll be put to good use in some future, secondary system. Compared to the Z3’s, the xStreams had a significantly larger soundstage, particularly with regard to projecting images forward of the speaker plane. There was more detail throughout the frequency spectrum, although the largest differences were in the midrange and treble. The xStream’s bass had more detail and articulation, but the difference was not as significant as heard in the mid and upper frequencies. On track 4 of Sleeping Gypsy, there are some whistle sounds that vary in pitch near the end of the song. The Z3 cable rendered those sounds as coming from a single wide “cloud” stretched between the tops of the speakers. The xStream cable rendered the whistles as coming from three distinct locations. There were more overtones heard with piano and guitar notes. I have been listening to this LP and CD for many years. This is the first time I have paid attention to the lush, exotic percussion tracks laid down by Ray Armando throughout the album.
I next did an A/B comparison of the LP and CD. Pausing the CD at the very beginning of each track and then starting it once the LP started allowed me to synch the playback of the LP and CD very closely. I could then switch back and forth between the two sources. The soundstage dimensions between the two media were the same. The LP sounded more real due to the following:
1. More detail and natural decay on guitar strings.
2. More 3-dimensional weight on vocals, saxophones, and guitars.
3. Slightly more “growl” on bass guitar notes.
4. Hi-hat has more metallic shimmer and overtones.
5. Increased sense of the piano player's finger impact on the keys.
I stayed up way past my bed time listening to music.
Day five consisted of 9 hours of play time.
Even though my xStream interconnects and speaker cables have less than half the manufacturer’s recommended break in time, their performance has been outstanding. I am looking forward to hearing what further performance improvements will accrue as I get close to and pass the specified 400 hour and 200 hour break in points (or until I get one of those Cable Cooker things). Such Good Sound.